LINGUIST List 28.4358

Fri Oct 20 2017

Review: Sociolinguistics: Alim, Rickford, Ball (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 10-Jun-2017
From: Larry LaFond <>
Subject: Raciolinguistics
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: H. Samy Alim
EDITOR: John R. Rickford
EDITOR: Arnetha F. Ball
TITLE: Raciolinguistics
SUBTITLE: How Language Shapes Our Ideas About Race
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Larry L. LaFond, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville



Over the last decade, a thoughtful discussion about how race shapes language and language shapes race has emerged. Certainly, various fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, dialectology, etc., have used race as a variable for decades (e.g., Labov 1966 & 1972, Gumperz 1981, Baugh 2000, and a great many others), but historical events of the last decade have distinctly foregrounded interactions between race and language. For example, close scrutiny of Barack Obama’s use of language after his election in 2008 sparked interest in “racing language and languaging race” (Alim 2009). Alim and Smitherson’s reflections on this were encapsulated in their 2012 book: Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language and Race in the U.S.

In this present edited volume, “Raciolinguistics” by H. Samey Alim, John R. Rickford and Arnetha Ball attempts to broaden and extend this effort by forging a new field, “raciolinguistics,” which seeks, “…to ask and answer critical questions about the relations between language, race, and power…” (2016:3). This developing area of inquiry attempts to examine close relationships between race, racism, and language and how these relationships impact politics, education, identity, and daily life. A basic premise of the volume is that, while there are some who study language without theorizing race, and others who study race without fully recognizing the role of language in racialization, all would be better served by analyzing race and language together. Their argument is that while race and language may be discrete concerns, they are not unconnected, and the fields of linguistics and race and ethnic studies are together important for theorizing new ways forward.

A content-rich introduction (“Introducing Raciolinguistics: Racing Language and Languaging Race in Hyperracial times”) by H. Samy Alim is followed by 18 chapters looking at race and language in a wide diversity of global contexts spanning from the U.S.-Mexico border to Israel, from Brazil to Africa, and from Spain to the United Kingdom. These chapters are divided into three parts: Part I – Languaging Race, Part II – Racing Language, and Part III – Language, Race and Education in Changing Communities.

Part I contains seven chapters, the first two of which demonstrate the fluidity between phenotype, race and language. In Chapter 1, “Who’s Afraid of the Transracial Subject?: Raciolinguistics and the Political Project of Transracializaton,” H. Samy Alim’s treatment of “transracialization” captures the mutability of language use by reference to an autoethnographic account of a five-day trip to a conference, a trip during which nine moments arose where Alim was racialized across five language varieties. Alim presents transracialization as a dynamic process and suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, one can undergo a “race change.”

In Chapter 2, “From Upstanding Citizen to North American Rapper and Back Again: The Racial Malleability of Poor Male Brazilian Youth,” Jennifer Roth Gordon looks at the role of language in the social construction and racial malleability of poor, male, Brazilian youth, arguing that both scholars, and the speakers themselves, must pay attention to fluid raciolinguistic practices.

Chapter 3, “From Mock Spanish to Inverted Spanglish: Language Ideologies and the Racialization of Mexican and Puerto Rican Youth in the United States,” by Jonathan Rosa, reveals the complex relationship between context of usage, language ideology, and linguistic forms as Latinas/os are pushed into interactional dynamics that force them both to navigate and transform linguistic boundaries.

Chapter 4, “The Meaning of Chin- Chong: Language, Racism, and Response in New Media,” by Elaine W. Chun, analyzed public discourse about racializing terms along a determinist to potentialist axis and a lexicalist to contextualist axis, revealing when meaning happens and where meaning lies. Chun’s chapter points to the necessity to acknowledge diverse folk and scholarly understandings of racist words.

The challenges faced by Asian Americans are taken up in Chapter 5, “‘Suddenly faced with a Chinese Village’: The Linguistic Racialization of Asian Americans,” by Adrienne Lo. Together with the previous chapters by Rosa and Chun, this set of chapters show how Latinos and Asian Americans are othered, made foreign, and considered unassimilable in both covert and openly racist ways, especially through language that reflects white anxiety about the changing face of America.

Two final two chapters in this section of the book direct attention to linguistics representations within Hip Hop culture. Chapter 6, “Ethnicity and Extreme Locality in South Africa's Multilingual Hip Hop Ciphas,” by Quentin E. Williams, shows how ethnicity and extreme locality combine in the production of language by providing an ethnographic account involving multilingualism and race in verbal duels.

Chapter 7, “Norteño and Sureño Gangs, Hip Hop, and Ethnicity on YouTube: Localism in California through Spanish Accent Variation,” by Norma Mendoza-Denton. Mendoza-Denton reveals the use of publicly accessible messages that are only privately understood by communities associated with the California-centered specific cultures.

Part II of the book contains five chapters that theorize language through the lens of race, or “racing language.” These chapters examine how race theory helps us understand what is going on in performances of language and sociolinguistic variation.

The section commences with Chapter 8, “Toward Heterogeneity: A Sociolinguistic Perspective on the Classification of Black People in the Twenty-First Century,” by Renée Blake. Blake provides a critique of sociolinguistics, and argues that language scholars must go beyond traditional social categories of race and consider the subtle and divergent ways the individuals and groups “understand themselves with the imposition of national ideology of race” (2016:154).

In Chapter 9, “Jews of Color: Performing Black Jewishness through the Creative Use of Two Ethnolinguistic Repertoires,” Sarah Bunin Benor reconsiders the sociolinguistic notion of “ethnolect,” through an analysis of performances, presentations and interviews. She argues that there are pools of distinctive linguistic resources typically associated with African Americans and Jews, and that, while not all African Americans or Jews use the elements of the repertoire, individuals make differential use of the features to align themselves with racial, ethnic, and religious groups.

Chapter 10, “Pharyngeal Beauty and Depharyngealized Geek: Performing Ethnicity on Israeli Reality TV,” by Roey Gafter looks at Israeli reality television and uncovers the complex, multilayered social meanings involved in the variant production of two Hebrew pharyngeal phonemes. Gafter’s chapter draws on Eckert’s (2008) model of indexical fields and challenges some aspects of Labovian (1966) sociolinguistics, in as much as the markers in this study do not have fixed social meaning.

Chapter 11, “Stance as a Window into the Language-Race Connection: Evidence from African American and White Speakers in Washington, D.C.,” by Robert J. Podesva, goes beyond a description of linguistic features that serve as components of African American speech to view the use of these features as resources for differing kinds of identity work.

Chapter 12, “Changing Ethnicities: The Evolving Speech Styles of Punjabi Londoners” by Devyani Sharma, completes this section of the book. Sharma’s chapter reveals enormous complexity in ethnic styles that are only understandable if gender, history, and class are simultaneously considered, thus this case study of Punjabi London involves triangulation of varying kinds of analysis to determine how an individual is situated and the level of their agency and engagement within a community.

Part III of the book contains six chapters looking at language, race, and education, particularly in cities and communities undergoing transition. The authors in this section consider the implications of linguistic racialization for public education, policy and practice and offer solutions, particularly as they may affect youth of color.

Chapter 13, ''’It Was a Black City’'': African American Language in California's Changing Urban Schools and Communities,” by Django Paris, challenges current pedagogical practices, with Paris promoting a“culturally sustaining pedagogy,” unlike the monolingual and monocultural policies in most U.S. schools.

Chapter 14, “Zapotec, Mixtec, and Purepecha Youth: Multilingualism and the Marginalization of Indigenous Immigrants in the United States,” by William Perez, Rafael Vasquez, and Raymond Buriel, provides a unique look at “trilingual language brokering,” a kind of codeswitching between trilingual speakers. This chapter, as well as the previous chapter by Paris, consider which languages are learned, how they are learned, and how youth use language to navigate their lives in the face of racism and xenophobia.

Chapter 15, “On Being Called Out of One's Name: Indexical Bleaching as a Technique of Deracialization,” by Mary Bucholtz, further discusses discriminatory language and practices, highlighting problems related to the demeaning experience of being renamed against one’s will through conscious mispronunciation, Anglicization or brazen renaming. Bucholtz regards the former practice as indexical bleaching, a technique of deracialization.

Chapter 16, “Multiculturalism and Its Discontents: Essentializing Ethnic Moroccan and Roma Identities in Classroom Discourse in Spain,” by Inmaculada M. García-Sánchez, gives us a look into the unanticipated consequences of some educational programs attempting to promote inclusion and participation, showing how multicultural programs in Spain have at times made Moroccan immigrants and Roma minority children even more markedly identified as outsiders.

Chapter 17, “The Voicing of Asian American Figures: Korean Linguistic Styles at an Asian American Cram School,” by Angela Reyes, provides an interesting interaction with the Bucholtz chapter, in that it also shows deliberate and derisive mispronunciation to reproduce racial ideologies. She argues that language used can only be understood in its linkage to people, which also involves how images of people are given recognizable qualities, pointing out the need to examine the voicing of figures.

Finally, in Chapter 18, ''Socials,'' ''Pochs,'' ''Normals'' y los demás: School Networks and Linguistic Capital of High School Students on the Tijuana-San Diego Border,'' Ana Celia Zentella provides a sociolinguistic ethnography of a border school in California to highlight the use of language as socially acceptable forms of racism that “stigmatize Mexicans as non-White” and stigmatize their language as incorrect and deficient.


Ideas of indexicality, semantic underdetermination, implicature and, more generally, the recognition that language meanings shift across contexts, are all concepts that have long been discussed in semantics and pragmatics; however, the extension of these ideas specifically to look at how racial identities and racializing practices shift across contexts and time is relatively new. Alim, Rickford and Ball have assembled an excellent set of essays that challenge the way we construct social reality. The combined force of the book is more than academic. It is a call for action in the political realm and in our personal interactions.

There does not appear to be a specific audience for this book (scholars, undergraduates, general public, etc.), but rather the book seems to be intended for anyone who is interested in thinking more deeply about the interplay of race and language. The chapters are nearly uniformly coherent, well written, and pleasurable to read; they are scholarly, yet accessible. It is not hard to imagine this as a text supporting general courses in sociolinguistics or more specialized courses related to race and language. The book admirably introduces readers to a new field of inquiry and opens up vistas for potential future research on the questions it raises.

There were a few unsatisfying elements to the book. For example, Alim’s chapter on the transracial subject in some places provided no glosses for examples intended to make the point of racial translation. This was not an issue throughout the book (in fact, some chapters such as Roth-Gordons displayed exceptionally clear glossing). Some of the pictures reproduced in the book appeared to dark or of grainy quality, which did not enhance the overall presentation.

More substantively, while some arguments made in the book are clear enough, they at times seem a bit overstated. For example, it may be (as Gafter claims) that early examples of Labovian linguistics tended to view race as a fixed category, but it would probably be fairer to acknowledge that these studies focused more on identifying language variation and less on racializing the speakers of those variations. Furthermore, while the chapters in Part III are attempts at practical application of raciolinguistic theorizing, those chapters might have been more persuasive if the specific suggestions made were supported by cited research. For example, when Zentella advocates the creation of flagship public high schools where Spanish and English proficiency are developed equally, the argument could have been strengthened by referencing the results of schools where this has been done previously. In other words, pedagogical implications and political proposals are most persuasive when motivated and informed by research.

Nonetheless, the overall impression the book makes is quite positive. All the authors were adept at portraying the linguistic landscape related to race, challenging assumptions about connections between race and language, and at providing new intellectual contributions regarding raciolinguistics. They help us understand the increasing complexities of a changing world, and to envision how to make that world a more hospitable place for all.


Alim, H. Samy. Racing Language, Languaging Race. Paper presented at the University of California, Los Angeles Symposium on Race and Ethnicity in Language, Interaction and Culture. February 27.

Alim, H. Samy & Geneva Smitherson. 2012. Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and
Race in the U.S. New York: Oxford University Press.

Baugh, John. 2000. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eckert, Penelope. 1990. The Whole Woman: Sex and Gender Differences in Variation. Language
Variation and Change 1. 245-67.

Gumperz, John J. 1981. Ethnic Differences in Communicative Style. In: C. A. Ferguson and S. Brice
Heath (eds.) Language in the USA. Cambridge University Press.

Labov, William. 1966. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press.


Larry LaFond is Professor of English Language and Literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he teaches pre- and in-service ESL teachers and undergraduate students in linguistics. His current research interests are in second language acquisition, syntax, and dialectal variation within American Midlands English.

Page Updated: 20-Oct-2017